Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Skybourne Sky-Sailor Slang

I'm proud of this. Proud enough that I wanted to share it. This is designed for the Skybourne campaign setting and the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.

Sky Sailor Slang
Aushet’s Chest: When a delver must be abandoned in the Forest, a ship crashes among the trees,
or a hawk falls off their boat, they say they’ve gone to Aushet’s chest. Aushet is the Fiend of murder
who’s followers sometimes trap the souls of their kills to prevent resurrection; going to Aushet’s chest
means the dead hawk’s body is unrecoverable somewhere on the Forest floor.
“That cursed captain! I’ll send his boat to Aushet’s chest if I have to drag it there myself!”
Aushet’s chest is depicted in artwork as a large wooden treasure chest the Fiend uses to hold souls,
but cruder hawks mean the term differently, and will refer to embracing certain death as ‘nuzzling
Aushet’s breasts’.
“We’re surrounded by teeth, friends. Take a final swig of whatever you have, ‘cause we’re nuzzling
Aushet’s breasts tonight.”
Bag: A simple cloth dirigible. Many of the poorest sailing ships attain flight through the use of a bag.
“The bag’s sprung a leak; get up there and patch up what you can.”
Boat: An airship.
“My boat’s getting repaired, so I’m land-locked for the day.”
Bit: As expletive indicating that something is terribly wrong.
“We’re bit, mate.”
Built for It: This phrase refers to someone being a created, and doing the job that they were, in fact,
created to do. It implies a very great amount of skill.
“The cook claims he’s a dwarf, but his food is so good I wouldn’t be surprised if he was built for it.”
Cannon to the Knee: To get married. “I used to be a delver, but then I took a cannon to the knee and
switched to trading.”
Cannon-Mouth: Skill with words and wit, or a hawk who’s an especially skilled diplomat. “A
cannon-mouth’ll sink a ship as fast as anything, if you use it right.”
Chop Shop: The cryptyards of Andrus. Implies someone is going there as a corpse.
“Poor Dani’s in the chop shop, now.”
Dig: A specific ruin that one might delve for treasure. A ruin with a lot of treasure is called a ‘full dig’,
while an empty or worthless ruin is called a ‘dead dig’.
“The Captain’s on edge because we’ve hit nothing but dead digs for a month, and the loan is coming
Dish: Foolish and inexperienced; someone of low intelligence or skill who’s a danger to those around
“Listen, you dish, go back to the ground where you can’t cause more harm!”
Dine with Cris Anthom: Be overtaken by a storm. Cris Anthom was a legendary sky pirate, whose
exploits were so terrifying that some doubt if he ever existed. Cris Anthom and his vessel, the
Dread Cutter, reportedly travelled in a violent storm, only appearing once another vessel was
thoroughly damaged and disheartened by the winds and rain and leaving no survivors. Whether
the Dread Cutter still exists or ever truly existed, ‘dine with Cris Anthom’ is what sky pirates say if
they can’t outrun a storm.
“Batten down the hatches, mates, we’re dining with Cris Anthom tonight!”
Delve: The act of searching for and excavating ruins, with the express purpose of uncovering
treasures. A hawk who delves is called a delver.
“We’re delving in the morning, so drink up while you can, boys!”
Faring: Adventuring. This is usually attached to wherever the adventure is taking place: woodfaring,
seafaring, skyfaring, darkfaring.
“Delving and woodfaring is what made my fortunes, pij.”
Final Pay: The money given in exchange for being sold as a corpse to the chop shop.
“Dani’s widow’s living off her husband’s final pay, but how long will that last?”
Frost: An oath to the Frost Father, primordial lord of the skies, for protection. Used as an expletive.
“Frost, I hope we live through this.”
Hawk: An experienced sky sailor. Also used to denote anyone with who lives by skill and cunning.
“Last night, three hawks came in to do business with more money than I ever seen!”
The Hub: The city of Andrus, named so because it is the center point where all 4 quarters of the
world meet.
“The plan was to be in the Hub by nightfall, but the pigeons were spinning and demanded the cap’n
plant early.”
Land-Locked: Someone who never sails the skies, not even as a pigeon, if they can avoid it.
“I wasn’t made for bein’ land-locked. The sky’s in my blood.”
Land-Shackled: To be retired from sky sailing.
“He got land-shackled 3 years ago and hasn’t been up since.”
Mealing: To work as a meal in the Midnight District of Andrus.
“Jade can’t get by on her pay, so she’s mealin’ on the side.”
Murdered by Jak Dark: According to sky sailor legend, Jak Dark is the divine agent of Aushet, and
stalks the skies, bringing death to unlucky and foolhardy sailors. Whenever a sky sailor dies of
disease or an accident, it is said that Jak Dark killed him.
Among the more superstitious of sailors, Aushet is quickly gaining a reputation as the Mistress of
Piracy, and Jak Dark is said to be her right-hand man (sometimes with Cris Anthom on her left).
Whether or not this is true is only known by Aushet’s priesthood.
“The poor sod. Looks like Jak Dark got him last night.”
Old Roc: An old sky sailor with a lot of experience.
“Tos is an old roc; he’s been in the air for over 30 years.
Pigeon: Someone who sails the skies, but is not a sailor. A pigeon could be someone only booking
passage on a ship, or someone who works on a ship as an entertainer or courtesan. Sometimes
shortened to ‘pij’. Calling a sky sailor a pigeon is an insult, implying he is useless.
“The captain got us a job as a transport, so now we’re babysitting three pigeons for a few days.”
Plant: To descend to the Forest for an extended period of time, usually by resting on the canopy.
This could be done while the crew descends to find a dig, or when stopping for the night, such as
when a ship doesn’t have the crew to fly 24 hours a day.
“We’ll plant here for the night, then be home by noon tomorrow.”
Quarters: The world of Khrone is sharply divided between 4 different segments, which are called
‘quarters’. These quarters are:
Sky Quarter: The Floating islands and the mountaintop sanctuaries. The ‘safe’ section of the world.
Wood Quarter: The surface of the world; usually refers to the Forest, but also includes the few non-
Forest parts, such as the deserts and the tundra.
Dark Quarter: The underbelly of the world; the deep caves where dark things live, where not even
the Forest roots can reach.
Sea Quarter: The water, both above and below the surface.
5th Quarter: Traveling the maelstrom and the planes beyond is referred to as ‘visiting the 5th Quarter‘.
It’s a dangerous place where the normal laws of reality don’t apply, but it’s also home to endless wealth,
or so the rumors say.
“We’re going to pay us a visit to the wood quarter, boys. Kiss your mates goodbye; we won’t be back
for a month, at least.”
Sniffing for Hounds: To do something incredibly stupid, and usually illegal; inviting the Hounds to
come arrest you, or something equally foolish. “Gorga wants to steal a ship, but I ain’t sniffing for
Spinning: Altitude sickness. Also denotes someone who is inexperienced at sky sailing.
“I wouldn’t trust him with that job yet, sir, he’s still spinning.”
Take a Walk: Telling someone to walk off of an airship (aka, to die).
“It’s a simple proposal; you tell me where the treasure is, or you take a walk. Your choice.”
Tooth: A hostile Forest-dwelling creature, such as a dinosaur or cherufe warrior. Sometimes used
as ‘big tooth’ to refer to a particularly, enormous creature.
“So there I was, staring down no less than twenty teeth and I tell you, I thought I was done for.”

Monday, May 23, 2016

On Trailers and Ghostbusters

So my wife and I sat down and watched the first Ghostbuster's trailer to figure out why people hated it so much. Yes, it's a poorly-made trailer that's not very funny and yes, I'm sure some people do just hate it because 'women' or 'nostalgia', but when something generates this powerful of a negative reaction it usually means there's something artistically-dysfunctional going on, and as a professional creator I like to use these opportunities to figure out what it is.
(Note: My thoughts are right below and I try to keep them short, but if you want to read my wife's Master's-level addition where she reduces the trailer to a smoking crater, I've posted that comment below mine.)
1. We're starting to figure out that the boxes we've made for female characters to check in order to prove how 'strong' they are are, in fact, also limiting, and the trailer made very little effort to introduce the characters in any way except telling us what box they fall into. The biggest offenders for this where "I'm the obligatory super-genius math girl designed to be a STEM role model for young girls which is why we must point out I'm apparently the BEST EVER." and "I'm a stereotypical poor racist strong black lady who's so stereotypical it's physically painful to watch."
I am very sure the characters will be much more interesting in the actual movie, but the way this trailer introduced the characters just made both me and my wife recoil.
2. Comparing the feel of the the trailer to the feel of the old movie, I'm struggling to find a way to express it other than the trailer feels like bad fan fiction.
The original movie straddled the line between comedy, action, and horror, and was surprisingly grounded, given the subject matter. It had action in it, but certainly didn't have kung fu scenes or shoot-outs, and never tried to convince us the characters were anything other than 4 guys in over their heads. The original character's equipment looked like they'd built it themselves in a basement, which in fact they did. I'm sure it had more to do with the special effects capabilities of the 80's than an artistic choice, but the movie felt real, even when ghosts were popping up all over the place.
The trailer, though, felt like they were marketing the movie based entirely upon how they had 'improved' the original. Like someone telling you why you should read their fan fiction because "Its totally like the original, except I added a hundred giant ghosts and dual-wielding pistols and now they have power gauntlets they use to PUNCH GHOSTS IN THE FACE!" To connect point 1 in above, it felt like there was no time to get to know the characters nor thematic room to invoke the horror genre because they were trying so hard to make sure you knew these characters could totally be super hero role models for young girls and what other reason could you possibly have to see this film?
3. I think, because this movie has billed itself so heavily on being a gender-swapped remake rather than a reboot that just happens to have more women in it, it's reinforcing its connection to the original so strongly that points 1 and 2 above jump from being small irritants into being big problems. If they kept one of the main 4 a guy, kept the secretary a woman, and had two black cast members instead of 1, I think people would be more able to approach the new movie as its own thing and not compare absolutely everything it does to the original. But because the main characters are supposed to invoke in us the original cast just gender-swapped, it puts people on alert, increasing their natural desire to compare the two movies. By forcing them to think even more strongly about that, it makes everything the new movie does that differs from the old movie feel wrong somehow.
Or, as my wife puts it:
"I think the best way to compare what the new movie lacks is by comparing the 1984 trailer with the 2016 trailer. The 1984 trailer starts off by cheesily introducing the problem of paranormal activity by being highly serious and yet also invoking cheesy horror films and crock documentaries. It then introduces the solution as the ghostbusters--the heroes who are our only hope, a fact the trailer continues to subvert by repeatedly showing how incompetent they are. The humor of the trailer (and movie) is created by carefully playing epic expectations against the reality of the buffoonery that is Bill Murry, Dan Akroid, and co. The trailer also ends by dropping some pretty big names for the era.
"Now the 2016 trailer tries to begin on a simlarly serious note, and introduces the new ghostbusters. The first scene we see them in is shockingly similar to the library scene at the beginning of the original. Inviting such an direct comparison between the two films many will walk away with the impressions that a) this is just a cheap knock off and b) Bill Murry and Dan Akroid had better comedic timing in that scene. So having started off by establishing the inferior knock off status of the remake it proceeds to introduce the characters as highly competent scientists, not buffoons, thus removing the key form of humor from the original. The only shortcomings shown are that they're kind of awkward women who sometimes stumble over words and situations, ala Anna in Frozen. But Anna's awkwardness just doesn't carry the same comedic punch as Bill Murry's buffoonery. These women are as flawed as Hollywood allows 'strong women' to be, aka not very flawed at all, aka boring.
"But don't worry, the trailer proceeds to introduce our highly flawed and character driven women. The walking talking black stereotype. She is painful to watch and a perfect representation of the lack of diversity in Hollywood. The black guy in the original was a black guy who happened to be in a movie. He has some character traits that invoked a southern black man, but otherwise he was unique for how average he was in a crazy situation. The black women in the reboot is BLACK- a walking talking stereotype prevented from doing anything that isn't BLACK, further entrenching stereotypes about black women being fat, loud, sassy, angry, uneducated, and poor. Thanks 2016. Thanks for allowing a wider range of expression for black actors than they had in 1984. And for increasing the number of black people represented in film. Oh wait...
"The trailer has now established that it's four leads are either bland knock offs or walking stereotypes, not the best way to garner audience enthusiasm. At this point it moves on to show that the film has AWESOME special effects (not a big pull for audiences these days--we've seen it all before) and EPIC action sequences (in the age of super hero films, a little been there done that). Oh and speaking of super heroes, they immediately cut to show you they've got Thor! There's no instruction of Chris Hemsworth, he functions merely as a reminder that there will be eye candy.
"The trailer ends without listing its cast. I found this a notable omission since it's fairly standard in trailers and the film clearly has the agenda of highlighting female comedians, so you'd think they'd want to name them. Personally I don't know the names of all four of them, so you know names would be nice. But they don't include them. To me this suggests they lack confidence in their casting, the producers have already concluded these women's names won't sell tickets.
"And there's the problem that by far the biggest name in this girl power film is a man. They could have easily avoided this by casting someone other than Chris Hemsworth, but instead they cast B-D list women for a girl power blockbuster and then overshadowed them by an A list man. Thus in almost every way the trailer failed to hit its mark as either nostalgic or girl power."

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Law, Chaos, and Conflict

I just posted an update to the Skybourne kickstarter explaining a little bit about how alignment works in the Skybourne universe, and now that I've explained the 'how' of alignment there, I thought I would take some time here to explain the 'why'.

As a designer, one of the things I do is identify places where the game could be expanded, explained, or attempted differently, and alignment fits the bill. In every forum that I've ever seen dealing with Pathfinder or D&D, I don't think I've seen a topic discussed more frequently than alignment: "Why does a paladin have to be Lawful?", "Why can't I make a barbarian/monk?", "Is the PC rogue who stole the party's things and slit their throats in their sleep a dick or does 'I'm just playing my Chaotic Neutral alignment!' really work there?"

The reason why interpreting alignment is so important in the above-situations is that it is hard-coded into Pathfinder; alignment requirements for classes, magic like dispel evil or protection from good, outsiders who have aligned subtypes; it's not just a guide for players, it's a part of the adventuring life. As such, the thing that seems the most intriguing to me about alignment isn't defining what is or is not a chaotic good personality, but really unpacking these mechanics; why are they there, and what do they mean?

For the Good/Evil divide, we generally seem to know what we're doing: heroes going off to defeat the evil dragon/necromancer/lich is such a part of the adventuring mythos that even neutral parties find themselves doing it for money, and almost every cleric casts protection from evil at some point in their career. The class with Good as a prerequisite (paladin) and the class with Evil as a prerequisite (Antipaladin) are literally polar opposites, and it isn't hard to imagine campaign conflicts that would pit these two against each other.

But what about Law and Chaos? They have the same mechanics; law and chaos have their own cleric domains like good and evil, and spells like protection from law and chaos hammer exist right alongside their good and evil companions. Stories are based around conflict, and the law/chaos divide seems to be designed to provide just as much conflict as the good/evil divide, but I've rarely seen this done in a way that seems satisfying. Sure, I've seen campaigns that tried to pit freedom fighters (chaos) against tyranny (law), but I've never seen that quite work; aside from the fact that even then I rarely see the law/chaos spells and mechanics being used, it raises all sort of new questions: If those freedom fighters win, won't they set up a government too, and would that make them suddenly lawful? Many revolutions throughout history have created governments just as oppressive as the ones they overthrew (often just targeted at different sub-groups). Is it only about attitudes toward personal freedoms and colonialism? And what does that say about classes with lawful/chaotic prerequisites? If paladins and antipaladins are defined by their conflict along the good/evil axis, what about monks and barbarians? True a barbarian must be nonlawful which leaves neutrality an option, but if we define the lawful/chaotic divide as opinions toward personal freedom or revolution, are we saying monks must always side with the tyrant and barbarians in opposition to him?

The answer given in Skybourne as detailed in our update (forest vs civilization) is an attempt to answer these questions by giving a visceral conflict to the law/chaos divide just as poignant as the good/evil divide. In Skybourne, lawful and chaotic forces fight for control of the destiny of a world, lawful to tame it, chaotic to free it.

Lawful evil forces could descend on chaotic good villages to enslave them, or lawful good forces could rally to defend a monastery against chaotic evil invaders, but as often as not it could simply be lawful neutral force plundering the forest for desperately-needed resources, or chaotic neutral forces invading lawful lands to stop what they see as the cruel and unusual subjugation of the natural world. In this setup not only do we provide players and GMs a reason to use spells that affect the lawful/chaotic divide, but also provide a series of potential adventure hooks for entire campaigns built around exploring this axis.

How about you all? Have you ever played a game that dealt with the law/chaos alignment axis? How did it go?


Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Some Thoughts on Advanced Magic

I remember once before writing our reasoning as to why we divided magic into ‘basic magic’ and ‘advanced magic’, but now that the book is out I thought it would be good to re-visit the idea of game-changing magic and our approach to it.

It has been said that the D&D 3/3.5 tradition that Pathfinder is built on is not one game, but is in reality 4: Levels 1-5 (gritty fantasy), levels 6-10 (heroic fantasy), levels 11-15 (Wuxia), and levels 16-20 (superheroes). The principal difference between these divisions is the availability of certain magic that can completely change the way each game is actually played.

Gritty fantasy (levels 1-5) is characterized by its dangerousness and lack of magic; players need heal kits, horses, skill checks, and melee weapons to accomplish anything worthwhile, even if you’re a cleric or wizard.

Heroic fantasy (levels 6-10) is characterized by its lack of dangerousness, at least in the everyday; magical healing has replaced all need for heal kits, fireballs are a regular crowd-clearing tactic, and at the end of this gameplay style, the party can even make limited use of teleportation, planeswalking, and the raising of the dead. To gritty fantasy, heroic fantasy characters are heroes spoken of in whispers and stories.

Wuxia (levels 11-15) is a completely different game from the earlier levels: teleportation, planeswalking, and the raising of the dead are now daily occurrences. The 'scry and fry' becomes a standard combat tactic, as anything with less magic than the party cannot withstand the tactical options wuxia players have. To heroic fantasy, wuxia characters are spoken of in whispers and stories. To gritty fantasy, wuxia characters are true living legends.

Superheroes (levels 16-20) is a completely different experience from what comes before. Facing anything less than ancient demons and primordial deities is a walk in the part, and 9th level spells are the party’s bread and butter. To wuxia, superheroes are their aspiration. To heroic fantasy, superheroes are living legends. To gritty fantasy, superheroes may as well be gods.

Some people love this progression and find it keeps the game fresh. Others don’t, and get bored with the game once it advances past the variation they actually enjoy. Some just find it an inconvenience: I remember distinctly one GM’s look of horror when we told him we were high enough level to cast planeshift, something I think he literally hadn’t considered and that threw off quite a bit of the rest of the story. I also remember another GM telling the story of the time he accidentally caused a TPK because the pre-written adventure he was using assumed the party had access to a certain level of healing magic which, not having a cleric in the party, they simply didn’t have.

Spheres of Power is, at its heart, about allowing people to play the game the way they want to. Rather than forcing people to take out what they don’t want in their game, we give them the option to add in what they do. Both players and GMs can decide when game-changing magic enters the game, how much game-changing magic will be used, and what it means to the story, world, and gameplay.

Some will want a progression like that mentioned above. Others might introduce game-changing magic right at the beginning and skip that whole gritty period. Still others might want to keep the game gritty the whole time, as they find the game gets boring when players can start reshaping the world according to their desires.

I’m curious to know how other people approach this magic in their own games, both with Spheres of Power or the core system. Do you use game-changing magic? Do you discourage it? Do you always create your games assuming characters over a certain level will become virtually immortal planeswalkers?

Monday, December 29, 2014

(Semi) Post-Mortem

It isn’t quite finished yet (there are two missing chapters), but it’s out and that means its time for some reflection. It's customary when finishing a big project to do a sort of reflective "post-mortem", but I've never done one of those before, and the product isn't quite technically done. Still, everything from the beginning of the Kickstarter to the release of the PDF has been different than expected, and it's about time for some explanations and reflections.

Going Pro 

No matter what creative field you work in, there’s a big difference between the aspiring professional and the actual professional.
  • The aspiring professional can go at his own pace. The professional has to hold to a schedule
  • The aspiring professional is allowed to make mistakes. The professional is expected to be past that.
  • The aspiring professional can go back and forth between day job, family, hobbies, and their aspiring profession as their needs demand. The professional is expected to have that balance figured out already.
So on and so forth. The transition from aspiring professional to actual professional is a long one, but Kickstarter has the uncanny ability to throw a company into the deep end of the professional pool and tell them to sink or swim. It’s almost a cliche now to hear companies talk about how they weren't prepared for the success of a kickstarter, but it’s a cliche because it happens so often it’s practically expected.

As for us, we’d already run a kickstarter before (which came in at a whopping $1,200 total) we expected this one to come in at $2,000, maybe as high as $5,000 if we were really lucky. And so, I did something that in hindsight was such a stupid financial decision that I expect many of you to shake your heads at me for it.

I promised a collaborator a percentage of the kickstarter funding.

When the kickstarter began climbing past $5,000 with no signs of stopping, we knew we had a crisis. We did the math and realized that as more people joined and the cost of production therefore increased, the more that percentage being scraped off the top was driving us into the red. Since kickstarters happen in real-time, my wife rushed to re-negotiate with the collaborator while I started devising stretch goals and new reward tiers that balanced production costs better to hopefully push us into having the overhead to actually do the project. In the end we managed to get the finances in order, but were now facing a much bigger project than we’d planned on, complete with an entirely new book (Wizard’s Academy).

I’ve always had a hard time leaving something alone if I know it can be better, and so with a project as big as this one I kept finding myself going back to basics and back to basics, thinking and re-thinking the spheres, the implications of what we were introducing to the table, and how it would affect the way people played vs how they thought they were ‘supposed’ to play. And as many of you know, a 3 months became 6 months became 9 months. I’m sure I must have looked comical to the people I was working with, as I’d set up mock battles between various characters and stop after an attack to discuss why they’d made that choice and what other options there might have been.

We did the best we could as we tried to find that elusive balance between family, day job and design, and we discovered a few things:

  1. There are dozens of little tricks, traps, concerns, and red tape that goes into running a small business that you never realize are there until you run into them.
  2. Running something as big as this kickstarter, this book, and this business on the side just isn’t viable. There’s just too much involved.
  3. I really, really like design.

While I was in the middle of developing these rules, Paizo made an announcement that they were seeking a new full-time developer, and like most of the community I applied.

I passed the first round. Then I passed the design test. I made it all the way to the final interview, but in the end I didn’t get the job (obviously). But even so, it was a great experience, and it got my family and I to seriously think about what it would take, and whether or not it would be possible, for me to really, truly do this full-time.

My dear pregnant wife was graduating in only a couple months, which meant the end of student employment, which meant we were approaching that horrible ‘what now’ phase of life, where we had a limited opportunity to choose where we wanted to go and what we wanted to do with ourselves. We had a book in development, but we also had a 2.5 kids. Did we want to bank our family’s future on my design skills, based on nothing more than a kickstarter and “well Paizo seemed to like me”?

We did.

As soon as graduation was over, we picked up and moved to the Northwest where most of the other game companies are located. We found a town about two hours from Seattle that had a college in need of a ballroom dance instructor (my most reliable day job) and set up shop. We knew this was a risk and it would set our already overdue book back even longer as we spend a few months finding a place to live, moving in, getting work and life sorted, etc., but in the end we knew it would give me more time to design, and it worked. The book progressed faster than ever before, and while not finished, we were nonetheless able to get the PDF out Christmas night. And, due to figuring out much better production lines and divisions of labor, the rest of it should follow much quicker than before.

The Future

If anyone was interested in why the book was taking so much longer than expected, that's the explanation, and my own commitment to make sure everything runs much smoother from here on out.

Being a professional company means we’ve had to change our approach to our own products. We’ve learned just how long it takes us to develop things and how to divide labor up so everyone’s constantly busy, and we’ve adjusted our schedule to compensate.

Our first priority is getting you what you paid for; finishing Spheres of Power and getting Wizard’s Academy out to you.

We will also be running a new Kickstarter in January, not for a finished product as such, but more for a product line: a series of PDFs that, while they will culminate in a physical book at the end, will allow us to release them serially to you as they’re done rather than asking you to wait for the finished product.

We will also be revamping our company website into a much better hub, and we will be using our Facebook page to make announcements much more regularly.

And as always, I’ll be using this spot for my own general musings, but I guess every designer needs a place for that.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Advanced Magic

The advanced magic chapter of Spheres of Power is almost done (or as done as it needs to be, given that new samples and some adjustments to the rules still need to  be made before publication) and I wanted to take some time to answer the question of why.

Why did we set things up this way, with magic divided into basic and advanced categories? Why is advanced magic listed as 'optional rules', when everything contained therein is already possible in the core Pathfinder magic system? I wanted to take some time to answer these questions properly, as they not only get into how SoP is used at the table, but also the whole design philosophy behind our work with Spheres of Power itself.

Many people have discussed at length "Story-driven" vs "Mechanics-driven" RPGs, but for our purposes I want to discuss another, similar-yet-ultimately-different divide: "GM-driven" vs "Designer-driven".

Perhaps the best single illustration of this concept is high-level play. When players have reached a high enough level that certain magic becomes available (Raise Dead, Teleport, Scrying, etc.), parties who have this magic play the game very differently than parties who don't. This is why high-level play is so difficult to balance, as it becomes almost impossible to guess what the party does or does not have at their disposal, and one of two things usually happens: everyone sticks to the rules (and often complains about how broken the game is at high levels), or the GM must improvise, customizing the encounters depending on the party and story in question to keep things interesting for everyone.

In the early days of the hobby, rules were light, and houserules were common. There were so many areas the rules simply didn't cover that DM improvisation was, in fact, often a necessity, so much so that the game might be completely different from one table to the other. One one hand, this made things annoying as each table meant learning a new list of houserules. On the other hand, this gave GMs both ability and permission to create whatever game or setting they wanted; it wasn't hard to write new rules if they wanted a world that, for instance, didn't have an arcane/divine disparity.

Then came 3rd edition, and everything changed. Through a strict codification and expansion of rules, the need for houserules could be lessened, and play could be standardized across tables. In many ways this was a blessing; players could move from table to table without having to re-learn the game, and things like organized play became possible. On the other hand, this also made things harder for GMs looking to go their own direction. The base-assumption of the game leaned so far against GM-driven mechanics that many players saw even the slightest breach of the wealth-by-level guidelines as some sort of betrayal of the social contract. Those GMs who wanted to houserule a unique setting or style of game also found themselves needing to re-write pages and pages of pre-existing rules.

Being a continuation of 3rd edition, Pathfinder falls squarely in the second category. However, as 3rd party developers (like myself) fall outside the official Pathfinder way of doing things, that places us, by definition, in the 1st category. Our job isn't to tell players how the game IS played, but to give them aids when contemplating how it MIGHT be played. We design for the players who are tired of Scry and Fry high-level tactics, or for the GMs who want to try a different kind of world than that which core Pathfinder infers. As such, while virtually anything possible through the core Pathfinder magic system is also possible through the SoP system, we decided to make no assumptions on our part as to how GMs would implement it.

In this fashion, the divide between basic magic and optional, advanced magic becomes an important change in mindset for both players and GMs. Instead of making GMs remove options they didn't want in their world, they can include the ones that fit. Players are completely at liberty to create scry and fry experts or use other game-changing tactics, but they must ask GM permission first instead of assuming that, since its in the rules, it will work for the style of game they are playing.

Perhaps this sort of thinking isn't new to you and your table, but all too often I've found it is. People get so caught up in how the game should or shouldn't be played that they forget how much freedom a tabletop RPG offers. We wanted SoP to be the toolkit for those who want more control over how their story is told, and are looking specifically for something they're not getting through the default assumptions of the Pathfinder roleplaying game.

Or at least that's our reasoning. What I'm most looking forward to after launch is seeing just how people end up using these tools we're making, and what they create as a result of them.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Wandering RPG Masters

Today, Sean Reynolds launched his kickstarter for the Five Moons RPG. To my understanding, this is his first big project since leaving Paizo earlier this year. To the design-uninitiated, I could understand if this project slipped your notice; the tagline the project is using for itself is more or less 'Pathfinder with the bits I didn't like changed.' It sounds like that one GM you know who thinks his houserules are so cool he should just publish it as his own game.

Except in this case, it's frikkin' Sean Reynolds writing the houserules. A guy who worked on D&D 3rd edition for 4 years, Pathfinder for 5 years, and even more as a freelancer is doing his version of how the game should be played. Comparisons are easily made to 13th Age by Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet of D&D 3rd ed and 4th ed fame (who're running their own kickstarter), and Numenera by Monte Cook (who's kickstarter was a legend on that particular fundraising site). Wolfgang Baur may be designing for Pathfinder, but he's mostly doing it as a 3rd party products these days, making his own spin on the game (he's running his own kickstarters as well.)

The way Kickstarter is changing game design is an old subject by now, and tabletop RPGs has always been an industry built on people making things in their basements, but these days it seems like all the big names are getting out of the old D&D/Pathfinder corporate world and starting their own companies and building their own games.

Technically this move has been happening for a long time; when D&D 4th ed came out, angry retro-gamers reviving their favorite 1st ed games as a better alternative. Then Pathfinder was created as a haven for fans of 3rd edition. I've heard it said (although I'm having a devil of a time remembering the link) that D&D Next's big goal isn't so much the acquisition of new players as it is inviting old players to come give D&D another chance.

Some of them will, but I'm fairly confident that many of them won't; or at least, they'll add it to the list of other games they're also playing. Not only have players learned to love other games, but many of the great RPG developers, like wandering martial arts masters of old, have set of on pilgrimages to develop their own techniques, systems, and variations on the art form.

While I'm sure Wizards of the Coast would love to monopolize the tabletop RPG world as they once did, I don't think it will ever happen again. And I honestly think that's a good thing; I believe a bigger, more competitive marketplace will grow the hobby much more than a single monopoly. With every company and great name coming out with their own games these days, I feel like we're officially a major industry; RPG is no longer synonymous with D&D, even inside the D&D, F20 tradition. Like the formation of Europe, the great D&D empire has fallen and we've all divided into our own nations, unified in history and culture but divided in government. And perhaps, as the landscape settles, the upheaval ends, and the new RPG dynasties solidify behind these great designers, we'll find ourselves a stronger hobby for the divide.

Who knows. What I do know is that its a changing world, and there's a lot more players now. And that sounds fine to me.